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A History of English Romanticism in the Eighteenth

Ballad forgery had begun early


In

Nos. 70, 74, and 85, of the _Spectator_, Addison had praised the naturalness and simplicity of the popular ballads, selecting for special mention "Chevy Chase"--the later version--"which," he wrote, "is the favorite ballad of the common people of England; and Ben Jonson used to say he had rather have been the author of it than of all his works"; and "the 'Two Children in the Wood,' which is one of the darling songs of the common people, and has been the delight of most Englishmen in some part of their age." Addison justifies his liking for these humble poems by classical precedents. "The greatest modern critics have laid it down as a rule that an heroic poem should be founded upon some important precept of morality adapted to the constitution of the country in which the poet writes. Homer and Virgil have formed their plans in this view." Accordingly he thinks that the author of "Chevy Chase" meant to point a moral as to the mischiefs of private war. As if it were not precisely the _gaudium certaminis_ that inspired the old border ballad-maker! As if he did not glory in the fight! The passage where Earl Percy took the dead Douglas by the hand and lamented his fallen foe reminds Addison of Aeneas' behavior toward Lausus. The robin red-breast covering the children with leaves recalls to his mind a similar touch in one of Horace's odes. But it was much that Addison, whose own verse was so artificial, should have had a taste for the wild graces of folk-song. He was severely
ridiculed by his contemporaries for these concessions. "He descended now and then to lower disquisitions," wrote Dr. Johnson," and by a serious display of the beauties of 'Chevy Chase,' exposed himself to the ridicule of Wagstaff, who bestowed a like pompous character on 'Tom Thumb'; and to the contempt of Dennis, who, considering the fundamental position of his criticism, that 'Chevy Chase' pleases and ought to please because it is natural, observes that 'there is a way of deviating from nature . . . by imbecility, which degrades nature by faintness and diminution'. . . In 'Chevy Chase' . . . there is a chill and lifeless imbecility. The story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind."[35]

Nicholas Rowe, the dramatist and Shakspere editor, had said a good word for ballads in the prologue to "Jane Shore" (1713):

"Let no nice taste despise the hapless dame Because recording ballads chant her name. Those venerable ancient song enditers Soared many a pitch above our modern writers. . . Our numbers may be more refined than those, But what we've gained in verse, we've lost in prose. Their words no shuffling double meaning knew: Their speech was homely, but their hearts were true. . . With rough, majestic force they moved the heart, And strength and nature made amends for art."

Ballad forgery had begun early. To say nothing of appropriations, like Mallet's, of "William and Margaret," Lady Wardlaw put forth her "Hardyknut" in 1719 as a genuine old ballad, and it was reprinted as such in Ramsay's "Evergreen." Gray wrote to Walpole in 1760, "I have been often told that the poem called 'Hardicanute' (which I always admired and still admire) was the work of somebody that lived a few years ago. This I do not at all believe, though it has evidently been retouched by some modern hand." Before Percy no concerted or intelligent effort had been made toward collecting, preserving, and editing the _corpus poetarum_ of English minstrelsy. The great mass of ancient ballads, so far as they were in print at all, existed in "stall copies," _i.e._, single sheets of broadsides, struck off for sale by balladmongers and the keepers of book-stalls.


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